Dr Barak and his team at the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust designed an ingenious experiment* to test the extent that context can activate or facilitate memories of previous events or items experienced in that context (Smith, 2007).
They created three different environmental contexts using three rooms. One room was furnished as a domestic environment with furniture, instrumental jazz music playing in the background and a lavender scent. The second room was furnished as an office, classic music played in the background and an apple-cinnamon scent. The third room had a table, a chair and some travel magazines that participants could read during breaks. The walls were blank and there was no music or scent in the room.
The team created a number of tests, using different materials, to explore whether context affects all types of memory in the same way. Materials included celebrity photographs, pictures of people unknown to the participants (familiar and unfamiliar faces), common objects, short stories and lists of words. Half of the participants were receiving rehabilitation after sustaining moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The other half were healthy individuals with similar demographic characteristics. Each participant learned about some of the materials in the room where they were later tested (same context) with other materials being presented in one room, but tested in a different room (different context). The memory tests that were used differed in their degree of difficulty. The hardest condition required people to recall as many items of each type as possible (e.g. 'without looking, can you remember what the three words were in the title above?'). The intermediate condition gave people clues to help them recall (e.g. 'one is a fruit, one is an object, one is an animal'). The easiest condition let people listen to a list of words and say whether or not they appeared in the study list (e.g. 'without looking, were the following words in the title? Apple? Badger? Fox? Toy? Pear? Ball?').
Participants with TBI had more difficulty than healthy individuals in remembering all types of information. This is not surprising, as memory difficulties are a frequent consequence of TBI. The most interesting finding was that trying to remember information in the same environment helped those with TBI in the harder tasks. These findings suggest that information about the surrounding environment is learned in a relatively automatic way, and that giving people reminders about the context of an event (which can be done by recreating the original environment by using smartphones or wearable cameras), can really help them retrieve important information, such as where they parked the car, where they put their keys, or instructions received from caregivers or employers. The study also led to an advance in cognitive science by demonstrating that context effects on memory depend on retrieval mode, and on memory ability associated with neurocognitive status.